Essential: THE SNIPER (1952)

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Fans of Edward Dmytryk’s CROSSFIRE will find THE SNIPER just as fascinating to watch. Again Dmytryk helms a gritty noir about a killer sought by the law. Given his mastery of the genre, there’s no better person to film the story, something that factored into producer Stanley Kramer’s decision to hire the blacklisted director. This was Dmytryk’s first Hollywood movie after a short period of political exile in Britain where he made two other bleak crime pictures (OBSESSION and GIVE US THIS DAY).

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Adolphe Menjou is cast as an aging police detective in San Francisco, and he turns in a credible performance. But Arthur Franz, as a parolee who takes his hatred out on women by randomly murdering them, makes a greater impression. Franz and Menjou share top billing, but since Franz receives more screen time and has the more compelling role, it feels like his story from start to finish.

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Columbia provided Kramer and Dmytryk with enough money to take the cast and crew to northern California, so there are quite a few outdoor scenes filmed in San Francisco. Long tracking shots add extra realism. Plus we have plenty of tense close-ups where Franz’s character aims his rifle and readies to bring down another unsuspecting victim.

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There are scenes where Menjou and the other officers consult a psychologist (Richard Kiley) after lineups fail to net any results. In their meetings together they try to understand the mind of the assailant. They gather what evidence they have and attempt to determine his next move, as impossible as it may seem.

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Kiley has the most important speeches in the movie, about the definition of legally sane versus legally insane, and he facilitates a discussion about how to cure repeat offenders. Mixed into the debate are comments from Menjou’s superiors on allocating tax dollars for more law enforcement, as well as jabs made at the media for exploiting the hysteria. In this regard, there is much to ponder. Despite the occasional preachiness of the script, Dmytryk is still able to keep the action sequences a priority.

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All the killings are shockingly depicted. When a piano bar singer (Marie Windsor) is slain, she dies in front of her poster outside the club where she works. She is brushing dust off the poster when she is shot. It’s very unexpected. In another scene a floozie hands Franz her phone number and address (dumb thing to do, lady) then is shot through the window of her apartment as she prepares herself for bed. That time we know the murder is coming because Franz sent a warning to the cops.

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There is also the part when a tower painter sees Franz on a rooftop about to shoot some women below. He tries to warn them, but takes a bullet and falls to his death. This leads to an exciting conclusion, with Franz running up a long hill, followed by Menjou and his men in pursuit. They will bring him to justice if it’s the last thing they do. When the cops finally corner him in a boarding house, we get the film’s most memorable image– a sad man holding on to something that will soon be taken away from him.

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THE SNIPER airs on TCM occasionally.

Essential: THE HEIRESS (1949)

The main character may not be marriageable. And because of this she turns from sweet, innocent and naive to embittered and isolated, giving Best Actress Olivia De Havilland a chance to demonstrate her dramatic range. Throw in young handsome Montgomery Clift as a scoundrel suitor, Miriam Hopkins as an over the top doting aunt, and Ralph Richardson as a stern father– and what do you have? The film that should have been named the Best Picture of 1949.

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Paramount purchased the rights to the stage play based on Henry James’ novel at De Havilland’s urging. She had recently earned an Oscar at the studio for TO EACH HIS OWN, and after seeing Wendy Hiller play Catherine Sloper on Broadway, she was determined to star in the film version with William Wyler directing. In addition to her win in the lead actress category, the production earned Oscars for art direction, costumes, and score. It was nominated for Best Picture and had nominations for Wyler, Richardson and for its cinematography. Scene stealing Hopkins received a Golden Globe nomination as supporting actress.

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Hopkins hadn’t made a film in several years. She was now taking character roles and has a memorable turn as Lavinia Penniman, a woman obsessed with the idea of finding a suitable match for her niece. She mistakenly thinks Clift’s character is just such a catch. Clift has an unusual entrance as Morris Townsend. At first we hear his voice and only see him from the back during a party. Then he eventually sits down and joins the others. Given how gorgeous Morris is, it’s hard to believe women weren’t leaving their partners to dance with him.

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Catherine’s father finds it hard to believe Morris would choose to spend time with her. After the party Morris starts calling at the Sloper home in Washington Square. He makes a visit each day, and Catherine becomes increasingly enchanted. This culminates in a scene where Morris and Catherine share their first kiss and leads to his sudden proposal of marriage. It’s poignant, awkward and strangely romantic. These moments are aided by Aaron Copland’s score.

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Catherine’s family seems to want what is best for her, but they go about it in the wrong way. It’s nice to see how protective the aunt is towards Catherine. The father is not written as too villainous. Certainly not as villainous as old man Barrett in THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET. We also have Morris’ sister in one key scene, and like Catherine’s family, she wants what is best for the young couple. But she and Catherine’s father have different approaches. This is followed by some tense verbal psychological warfare between Dr. Sloper and Morris about the young man’s intentions.

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Most of the time the characters are transparent with their feelings. But the best moments are the ones without such obvious dialogue. In the middle of the film there’s a farewell scene on a ship when the Slopers decide to travel abroad. Morris and aunty both show up to wish Catherine and her father a safe voyage. In this scene Hopkins has no lines, but her facial expressions speak volumes.

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Visually the film is full of rich images. When Catherine returns from Europe, she reunites with Morris in the rain. It’s emotional, especially because of her father’s continuing disapproval of them as a couple. In the second half of the story there are different levels of trust and betrayal going on among the main characters. Catherine defiantly chooses Morris and disinherits herself from her father; but ironically disinherits herself from Morris’ “love.” He then fails to elope with her. This leads Catherine to reject her father when he dies, and to reject Morris when he later begs forgiveness. She faces life on her own, but it will be embroidered with no more foolish beguilement.

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THE HEIRESS airs on TCM occasionally.

Essential: CROSSFIRE (1947)

When I was a student at the School of Cinema-Television director Edward Dmytryk spoke to our class one day. The first portion of his lecture focused on having been jailed as part of the Hollywood Ten, as well as the time that followed when he was blacklisted. And the second half of the lecture focused on the making of what he considered his best film.

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Dmytryk enjoyed talking about the film and the techniques he used, such as how he handled close-ups. He felt a director should save a close-up for the greatest dramatic moment– to give the audience insights into what the characters might be thinking when it counts most. He was very much opposed to directors excessively shooting in close-up, because he felt it was a tool that loses its power if overused. He also spoke about his use of shadows and low-key lighting, which were economical ways to make the film look visually interesting.

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Dmytryk also mentioned the casting of the three Bobs (Robert Young, Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum). Mitchum was not yet a full-fledged star. Ryan was also in the process of achieving stardom. According to Dmytryk Robert Young was the one RKO considered its most bankable star at the time. Young believed in the story so much he lowered his usual fee, which enabled them to get it made within the studio’s allotted budget.

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Another thing Dmytrk discussed was the original source material. It was not initially a story about anti-semitism. It was based on Richard Brooks’ book ‘The Brick Foxhole’ about a gay soldier who had been murdered on a military base. But they were not going to be able to get it past the production code office with this theme, so making the murder victim Jewish was substituted for homosexuality. It was a compromise Dmytryk and the producer had to make and probably one that wouldn’t have been necessary if the film had been made after the production code ended.

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Today CROSSFIRE is often compared to GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT, another important title from 1947 that tackled anti-semitism. Both productions were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, with A-picture GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT winning instead of B-picture CROSSFIRE. Fox’s story was certainly glossier, a star-studded affair on the subject of discrimination against Jews, but not exactly better. It’s unfortunate Dmytryk’s version did not earn the award, since its unflinching look at the violence associated with such hate crimes was grittier and more realistic.

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Like MADAME CURIE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, CROSSFIRE was shut out in all categories and did not receive one Oscar. In addition to the nomination for Best Picture, CROSSFIRE earned a nomination for producer Adrian Scott (also blacklisted); a nomination for Dmytryk as director; and supporting noms for Robert Ryan as the killer and Gloria Grahame as a good time girl.

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CROSSFIRE was the last time RKO had a Best Picture nominee. The studio only had one Best Picture winner, when it was honored for CIMARRON in 1931. In the early 1940s KITTY FOYLE, CITIZEN KANE and SUSPICION had also vied for the top prize, but none of them were deemed Best Picture by voters. Sometimes you have to wonder what the members of the Academy were thinking. Bob Ryan certainly tried hard to scare them into seeing things his way.

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CROSSFIRE will air February 18 and March 17 on TCM. Don’t miss it!

Essential: DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)

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DOUBLE INDEMNITY was based on a James Cain novel, and its screenplay was co-written by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder. With seven Oscar nominations Wilder felt certain his production would walk off with the year’s award for Best Picture. But like MADAME CURIE it was entirely shut out by Academy voters and did not earn one single Oscar.


Paramount’s other big hit of 1944, GOING MY WAY, took top honors; and its director Leo McCarey was honored instead of Wilder. In fact, Wilder was so angry he tripped McCarey on the way to the podium to accept his Oscar. Can’t say I blame Wilder, because he should have been recognized; though it probably boiled down to studio politics since Paramount’s executives had encouraged employees to vote for the feel-good religious picture over this more cynical crime yarn.

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The story begins when Barbara Stanwyck’s character wants to get rid of her husband, and if she can somehow make it look like an accident, she will be able to cash in on a double indemnity clause. For those who don’t know– an indemnity is a security or protection against a loss. If there is a certain type of accidental death, the payout will be twice as great. In order to carry out the diabolical plan, Phyllis Dietrichson needs help from a handsome insurance man named Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray).


At first Neff balks at the idea; he insists he is no murderer. But this changes when he gets drawn into her web of deception. Soon they’ve decided her husband’s death should occur during a train trip he is scheduled to take. At the station Neff poses as an injured Mr. Dietrichson, whom they’ve already killed and stashed in the trunk of a car.

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Mrs. Dietrichson lovingly sees Neff off in front of witnesses, then drives away with the dead body. In the next part Neff heads to the back of the train, and jumps off, making it seem as if Dietrichson took an accidental tumble off the moving locomotive.  At the same time Mrs. Dietrichson brings the car around with the dead body, which they place along the track with the crutches. It all goes according to plan until Neff’s boss, a man named Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), starts investigating.

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Keyes doesn’t think it really was an accident. He starts poking around to find out what really happened the night Dietrichson died. Some of the Neff-Keyes interaction is interesting to watch, because there’s a warm father-son type bond shared between them. Keyes probably doesn’t want Neff to be guilty, but it is his duty to uncover the facts.

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We don’t see Neff full of regret until near the end. After he regains his conscience, he goes to the Dietrichson home to set things right. There’s a quarrel, and Mrs. Dietrichson shoots Neff, who also shoots her. Realizing he’s killed Mrs. Dietrichson and knowing he has been shot himself, Neff makes his way back to the office to record a full confession into a dictaphone machine. He is critically injured in the film’s final moments, after the confession has been completed and Keyes has arrived.

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DOUBLE INDEMNITY was the first of two collaborations for Fred MacMurray and Billy Wilder. They would team up again sixteen years later for THE APARTMENT. That time Wilder would earn Oscars for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay. I don’t think Leo McCarey tripped him on the way to the podium.

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DOUBLE INDEMNITY will air March 1st on TCM.